Martin Sorrell Slams Holding Companies’ Data Strategies and Insists Facebook and Google Are Not ‘Frenemies’

S4 founder opened Adweek NexTech by challenging IPG and Publicis

Photo of Martin Sorrell at Adweek NexTech
Sorrell headlined the inaugural Adweek NexTech events this week. Sean T. Smith for Adweek
Headshot of Patrick Coffee

Martin Sorrell has examined the ways major holding companies are approaching advertising’s biggest challenges regarding customer data, and for the most part he is unimpressed.

The former WPP CEO and current executive chairman of S4 Capital opened Adweek’s inaugural NexTech conference this week with a keynote discussion that touched on many of the topics covered in his earlier interview about the inherent challenges of marketing “better, faster, cheaper” in the digital age.

In what may have been the most contentious comments of Wednesday morning, Sorrell critiqued the big-budget acquisitions of data providers by former rivals IPG and Publicis Groupe. Only Dentsu and its Merkle division got positive marks.

"[Facebook and Google] are not antagonists. We are working with them."
Martin Sorrell, executive chairman, S4 Capital

Adweek’s Ronan Shields stated that S4, like the bigger companies that dominate the digital ecosystem, is reportedly in the market for a first-party data provider to help clients better target their ads.

John Wren says Omnicom doesn’t have to control the data; it can rent it,” Sorrell said in response, adding that IPG, which formerly subscribed to the same philosophy, has “now bought the data” by acquiring Acxiom last year for $2.3 billion.

If I was to rank them, I would give an A to Dentsu and Merkle,” he said. “I would say that’s the best first-party data holding company deal that’s been done.”

Regarding Acxiom, he claimed that “the jury is out,” noting that this quarter’s IPG numbers were disappointing in the U.S. because of the loss of clients like the Army, Fiat Chrysler and Volkswagen and speculating that observers and investors would need to wait to determine the full effects of the acquisition as the company’s performance was also “influenced a little bit by the consolidation of Acxiom.”

He then dropped a rhetorical bomb in the room, stating, “From what I’ve been told, they’re going to cut off access to the Acxiom data to competitors,” thereby giving themselves an advantage.

An IPG spokesperson disputed this claim, writing, “That is not accurate.”

Sorrell did not mince words when it came to Publicis either, calling the purchase of Epsilon a “reversal of direction” that came as a complete surprise to investors and suggesting that this quarter’s earnings outlined a “set of serious issues for them to deal with.”

Giving a C grade to both the Acxiom and Epsilon deals, he also said, “There’s a question of whether Epsilon is first-party data,” despite CEO Arthur Sadoun’s repeated assertions that this very sort of asset will give Publicis an advantage over direct competitors and consulting firms like Accenture.

Again, the group disagreed with Sorrell.

“Possibly he is confused as Epsilon is first-party data, plus so much more. It’s also the capability to enrich that data and create individual IDs, as well as activate first-party client data through our proprietary Conversant platform,” said Steve King, Publicis Media CEO and Publicis Groupe chief operating officer. “And most important is the big picture—it is the ability for us to provide clients the only true end-to-end solution, delivering true personalized experiences at scale and enabling them to take back control of their customer relationships.”

Toward the end of the conversation, Sorrell addressed another one of his favorite topics: the unending dance with social networks that increasingly monopolize consumers’ attention. He seemed to eschew his famous quote calling Facebook and Google “frenemies” of the ad industry, telling the crowd, “[Facebook and Google] are not antagonists. We are working with them.”

While he acknowledged that that such companies increasingly deal directly with clients, he said of their relationships with marketing services providers, “it’s not competitive; it’s symbiotic.”

The relationships between Sorrell and his onetime adversaries, however, remain anything but.

@PatrickCoffee Patrick Coffee is a senior editor for Adweek.